When the NCAA selection committee released its first top 10 rankings two weeks ago, the big question existed at the bottom of the list with UCLA's inclusion as the 10th team.
Monday, as the NCAA revealed the second of its three up-to-the-moment top 10 seeds, the most interesting takeaway was closer to the top: South Carolina remained the No. 2 overall team, ahead of Notre Dame.
The group that comprised the top 10 was the exact same one as two weeks ago, with UConn, South Carolina, Notre Dame and Baylor remaining Nos. 1-4. The only differences in order are minor, with Ohio State and Texas swapping spots five and six, and Oregon State and Arizona State flipping Nos. 7 and 8. Maryland remained No. 9 and UCLA 10.
But South Carolina at No. 2 and Notre Dame staying put at No. 3 was the biggest area of debate prior to Monday's reveal. Following South Carolina's Feb. 8 loss to Connecticut, the Gamecocks and Irish were each left with one loss, each occurring against the Huskies. But because the Irish performed better against UConn on the road than the Gamecocks did at home, a strong case could be made for Notre Dame jumping ahead of South Carolina as the No. 2 overall team. (That's exactly what happened in Monday's AP Top 25 poll.)
Competitively, the distinction might not seem like a big deal, but it becomes important for regional placement. Whichever team ultimately finishes at No. 2 (UConn has No. 1 sewn up) should get assigned to the Lexington Region, as it is the closest site for each.
If South Carolina remains No. 2, that means Baylor goes to the Dallas Region and Notre Dame, being closer to South Dakota than Texas, will head to the Sioux Falls Regional. If Notre Dame is No. 2, then South Carolina gets assigned to Dallas and Baylor is pushed to Sioux Falls.
And the domino effect keeps rolling. The Gamecocks in Lexington could keep Kentucky from playing there -- but open the door for Louisville. It is the committee's stated attempt to keep teams from the same conference from possibly meeting until the regional finals. If the Wildcats are a No. 4 or No. 5 seed, they would have to go somewhere else to avoid that conflict with South Carolina.
With Notre Dame in Lexington, the Cardinals likely would have to play elsewhere and the Wildcats would be a safer bet to play in their home city (because the games are at Rupp Arena, where Kentucky does not play its home games, it would be allowed to play in the Lexington Regional).
"The discussion around two versus three was a big one, with each team having merits, depending on how you slice it," NCAA selection committee chairwoman Chris Dawson said Monday in a phone interview with espnW. "The eye test was also part of the conversation. It was hard even when you say, 'If they played each other right now, who wins?' It was not easy."
Dawson said the committee looked at how Notre Dame and South Carolina performed against their three common opponents (UConn, UCLA and Duke), and she also admitted that Notre Dame's better strength of schedule was talked about as an advantage for the Irish. Notre Dame was better against UConn. South Carolina might have been slightly better against the Bruins in Los Angeles, although both games were tight late (Notre Dame-UCLA went to overtime on a neutral court). South Carolina was probably moderately better at home against Duke than the Irish were on the road.
The Gamecocks also have two more top-50 wins despite Notre Dame's better SOS. And top-50 wins seems to be an area the committee is examining closely. All the data points are included in every evaluation the committee does, but when it comes to UCLA's inclusion in the top 10 two weeks ago, South Carolina's edge over Notre Dame, and Florida as part of the "other teams considered" this week, top-50 wins seems to be the difference-maker.
The Gators, for instance, have lost two straight and were blown out Sunday at Auburn. They also have a worse RPI and SOS than teams like DePaul, Oklahoma State, Syracuse and Stanford. Yet those schools were not part of the discussion for the final spot in the top 10. Florida was, along with (in alphabetical order) Florida State, Louisville, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
"It's going to be very challenging to seed the teams. ... This is my fifth year on the committee and this might be the hardest for seeding." NCAA selection committee chairwoman Chris Dawson
The Gators' advantage is in top-50 wins; they have six. Of all the teams mentioned above, only DePaul has that many.
The message there seems to be that bubble teams and teams looking for higher seeding better have a quality win or two on the résumé to stand above.
"We are looking at strength of schedule, top-50 wins, bad losses, were there any other factors [such as injuries] in any losses," Dawson said. "We are at a point in the season, looking at the résumés like that and how teams are playing now."
Dawson went on to add that this season is shaping up to be one of the toughest in recent memory for the committee.
"It's going to be very challenging to seed the teams. This could be our most difficult job," Dawson said. "This is my fifth year on the committee and this might be the hardest for seeding."